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Can Social Networks Cure Disease? Part II

Can Social Networks Cure Disease? Part II

Click here to read Part I of the story.

Part II of my TEDMED 2012 conference…

One day I found Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church in Southern CA in my office wanting to get religion about health.   After his appointment we went to dinner and over a bowl of cabbage and beet soup, I asked him to tell me about his church – –being a Jewish doctor from NY I didn’t know much about evangelical churches.

He told me his church had 30,000 members and they met every week in 5000 small groups to study, support and grow together.

It wasn’t a mega church it was thousands of mini-churches.  And the light bulb went off in my head here was a chance to test out this idea of peer support for creating health.

I said why don’t we put together a healthy living curriculum and deliver it through these small groups. Rick said yes because he had recently baptized 800 church members and after about the 500th one, he said to himself, “Wow, we are a fat church, and I am fat, and we need to do something.”

We didn’t need highly trained health experts – except in designing the program…

So a little more than a year ago with Rick and Dr. Oz and Dr. Amen, a Christian, Jewish and Muslim doctor – which sounds like the beginning of a bad joke we launched The Daniel Plan – a social experiment to see if community support was more effective than medication or conventional medical care for treating and reversing disease and creating health.

The Daniel Plan (after Daniel the Prophet from the Bible who resisted the kings temptation of bad foods) is a wellness program delivered through small groups in the church.

We thought a few hundred people would sign up.  In the first week 15,000 people signed up and over the last year they have lost an estimated 250,000 pounds – or the equivalent of 10 tractor-trailer trucks loaded with soda. Thousands of people and many churches around the world signed up.

In fact I met recently with church leaders in Atlanta and Bernice King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter who said that she thinks disease is a form of violence –and health is a basic human right.  She said that health is a form of non-violence to yourself and that she wanted to make this part of the King Center’s curriculum on non-violence.

And our social experiment worked.

We got biology to change by using the principles of functional medicine – the science of systems medicine, of network medicine, the science of creating health, through lifestyle-based interventions that optimized our BIOLOGICAL NETWORKS.

But we got behavior to change by using community and the power of positive peer pressure and SOCIAL NETWORKS.

Not only did they lose a quarter of a million pounds, but they also used less medication, and many stayed of the hospital didn’t need to go to the doctor as much. And the program was free.   And people reported more energy, better sleep, better blood pressure, better mood and even better skin and a better sex drive.

One man told me last year he was in the hospital 4 times and on 9 medications and this year he stayed out of the hospital and is only on one medication.   People lost 125 pounds, 90 pounds, 80 pounds, got off insulin and diabetes, and high blood pressure medication – it was like a gastric bypass without the pain of surgery, vomiting and malnutrition.

And those who did the plan together lost twice as much weight as those who did it alone.

E.O. Wilson in his new book, The Social Conquest of the Earth that it is our drive to join a group that makes up human.  It is the longing to belong – and the power of peer pressure can be force for both good and evil – It can drive war and violence, but it can also be a force for healing.

Here was the big insight for me: the community was not just a delivery system for health education. The community was part of the cure and the group was the medicine.

So what did we do? We created an interactive curriculum delivered through multiple media – online education, videos, articles, recipes, webinars all done in small groups and community events. We did this at Saddleback by changing the culture – Pastor Steve, who was born again, again went from serving ribs and donuts for breakfast to being a health champion, grabbing donuts out of the mouths of the men in his small group.

Over a thousand people showed up and volunteered to be health champions for their group. We changed what was served at bible breakfasts, the menus in the refinery and even what people served in their homes and their small groups.  People learned to create health together – – to shop, cook, eat, exercise and play together.

We didn’t treat disease.  We didn’t create a weight loss program.

We taught people self-care and combining that with caring for each other they created a small miracle – something heath care or health care reform has not been able to achieve.

In the most unlikely place, a large Church, we demonstrated that a community-based solution is more effective in treating and reversing chronic disease than our modern health care system. People helped each other create health.

I think this is the seed of a bigger possibility. In every home, community, school, workplace or faith based organization there are health champions waiting to be asked to show up and to help each other to take back our health.

We have a vision to scale this to a billion people and turn health care upside down.

And this is possible not just in rich countries. Peers for Progress created pilot programs in the poorest of countries to treat diabetes in Cameroon, Uganda, Thailand and South Africa based on peer support.  The peer support group models were more effective than conventional medical care for improving the health of diabetics and health care costs decreased 10 fold.

So after the meal of the skinny Haitian chicken and the beet and cabbage soup – I thought, what if we could tackle this problem not one by one by one in the doctor office and clinics but by the tens of millions in people homes, and churches, and schools and workplaces.

What if we could take the 36% of Americans who are eligible for work but NOT working – and create a Health Corp like President Kennedy’s Peace Corp or a the call to action that would be the equivalent of getting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

And create millions of community health workers, engage our world’s latent health champions because they are out there in every community, in every organization, of peers, people helping people that with a little training has been proven to produce better results than doctors or our health care system for the worst problems of our era.

Maybe I thought – this isn’t a medical problem like an infection or broken bone, maybe chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity are social diseases and we need a social cure.

Maybe it is the power of each one of us supporting each other that will help us all take back our health.

Acute disease can be left to the hospitals, but creating health and healing of chronic disease seems to happen best in the community – with people helping people, where each one of us lives – where we eat, cook, learn, work, play and pray.

That is where health happens.

When I was at Paul Farmer’s mountain clinic in Haiti – there was a plaque in French that said, “The happiest man is the one who makes others happy.”

An old African proverb says that if you want to travel swiftly travel alone but if you want to travel far, travel together.

Let’s all do this together!!

To help facilitate your journey to health, click here to join my online community.

Now I’d like to hear from you …

What do you think we can do to take back our health?

If you already are part of a community would you share your experiences?

Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD


Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.

Comments (29)

  • What great ideas Mark! I have been an admirer of yours for years, done several of your diets, but on my own. So I continue to be obese with lots of belly fat! So I woke up this morning, feeling tired and thinking I’ve got to do 3 days without sugar and found your email in my inbox!

    I also thought while reading Part 1 & 2, you should approach the Obamas…..for the health core and the first lady has been so great about exercise & gardening.

    Thanks for the inspiration. I’m a retired full time RV-er so maybe I can join an online group. I intend to get your book on sugar addiction when I get to a book store.

  • Awesome and inspirational! My healing path was something I have had to do alone and it was very difficult. I had to search for nutritional information on my own and without the support of my household but I knew my life was on the line and I was just not going to go with the flow anymore and stay sick and overweight. In my efforts to improve my own health I came into contact with a friend who was using a book on conquering disease with foods, I got the book myself and started making changes and dropped a significant amount of weight. I was still sick though with “Diabesity” but while I was drinking whole vegetable smoothies twice a day I hadn’t cleaned up my diet fully. I am currently a month off of any processed foods and I am consistently dropping 2lbs a week. I can now for the first time in my life say that I don’t have a ferocious appetite. For me what has worked and is working well is, I juice organic vegetables with a small amount of fruit 3 times a day, I take several supplements made from raw foods, get on my mini-trampoline at least 35 minutes a day and while all this works together to improve my health daily, I have found that getting off of the packaged processed foods is what did the trick for me. I noticed after the first week that I wasn’t feeling as hungry as I usually was, now after a month I have to make myself eat because I don’t feel hungry until I actually sit down and begin eating. It’s amazing. Since I started making changes I’ve lost 46 pounds and still have 53 pounds to go and for the first time in years I feel my body actually responding to what I am doing and I am so happy. I will do all that I can do to help others with “diabesity” to get on a healing path. For anyone who is taking a look at this information, stop wondering if it’s true because it really IS.

  • Mark, I read about the Rick Warren church’s endeavor to get healthier and didn’t realize that was a collaboration with you. When I read about him several months ago, I began dreaming of something similar in our church especially since that’s my major social support group and because I’m a nurse practitioner, trained in traditional medicine, and also a diabetic, heart patient needing to loose weight. Some of the worse trauma to my body has been created by well meaning church dinners with ‘comfort’ food.

    I’m continuing to explore this concept and influence church leadership as to this being an entirely worthwhile ‘small support group’ ………

    Thanks for all that you are doing in this venue to support those of us out here trying to find our own venue.

  • This is brilliant and I hope it spreads to every church, corporation and community.

    On another topic, I received the email today about the “Lose the Back Pain” kit for $97. I bought this a couple of years ago (I think it was more expensive then, but I’m looking at it now, it’s the same thing) and followed the directions to a T and it did not help me. I’m 58 years old so, figured I was stuck with the pain.

    Then I heard about the ADAPT program at my gym. I hired a trainer who had trained with ADAPT, and she took me very slowly through a series of small movements and measured every little thing. What she discovered astounded me and had to do with muscles everywhere in my body, muscles you wouldn’t expect to be factors. It took a few months but now I can do my job – throw freight – pain free. Best $300 I ever spent! ADAPT is out of Portland, OR and I think was designed to help people with disabilities optimize their abilities.

  • I am thrilled to see this! Dr. Hyman, you are such a motivational force. I recall the research of Jean Goeppinger, PhD, RN that was conducted at UVA while I was in grad school there in the 80’s. She also found that health behaviors changed only when social networks supported such changes. She would find “centers of social influence” both formal
    and informal (ranging from secretaries to pastors in rural Va.), and then use knowledge experts to “train the trainer.”
    Also, there has been a growing movement in holistic nursing for supporting each other promoting self-care by doing self-care. Nurses are trusted members of the community. Wow, with over 6 million nurses in the US alone, this has potential to be THE “health and vitality tsunami!” We could engage Holistic Nurse Health Coaches to make the first waves — create the first tectonic shifts — in the communities. We could “rock and roll — and wave” diabesity off the earth!

  • What sucks about this whole health and wellness is that if you have a partner that is fighting you tooth and nail about it, and wants to wallow in junk food, and is actually happy being in the mental and physical health (or lack of it) that she is in, then it simply drags me down. Short of divorce or pretending she doesn’t exist, there is no way I am going to be able to get my health on track.

  • Your optimism about how we can achieve health in this country has been as important to me as what I’ve learned about my own personal health. Thanks!

  • Mark, Brilliant insight and tremendous demonstration of its power! Thank you. Let’s launch the Health Corps!

    • Hi Ed:
      Mark what an inspiring idea!!
      We have both a church community @ Unity of Citrus, plus our clinic community of patients who would benefit from
      this model!!
      As a Functional Med. practice we work with the matrix, and are helping many get off meds, with lifestyle changes, but
      this model can bring it to another level!

      Mark: Thanks for being a pioneer for health.
      See you in Arizona!

  • Dear Dr Hyman:
    Congratulations for such an oustanding job you are doing to help people achieve an optimal health. I am sure your program will continue to succeed since it is backed with solid science.
    My name is armando flores and I´ve been in the field of Natural Medicine for 15 years. Recently I discovered a web site created by very scientific and knowledgeable doctors in which they describe the real cause of diabetes (I and II), and how to cure it 100%.
    I´ve een using this approach with very good success.
    My most ambitious goal is to open a natural health center to help people achieve the most optimal health by means of nutrition and a healthy life style.
    I live in Mexico, and we have people with diabetes by the thousands. In fact, diabetes is the number one cause of diabetes here in my country.
    Now, I just realized that I will not accomplish much working by myself, and that´s why I´ve been looking for people in this same field or others ( I´ve found two) to support me, but at this time, we have done nothing, other than planning, since we are lacking economic resources.
    I was wondering if you and your team have any plans to stablish a program here in Mexico any time soon. If so, I would more than glad to cooperate w your team. I have very good information which I am willing to share with as much people as possible.

    Yours in Natural Health,

    Armando Flores

  • Dear Dr. Hyman,
    As a member and Daniel Plan Volunteer with Saddleback Church
    I can’t agree more with the power of healing within community.
    And the ripple effect this effort has created.

    Better Together,
    Georgina Seeck

  • Mark, thank you for your brilliant insights to health. I always enjoy reading your publications and support your research. I will forever have the phrase “there is no such thing as junk food, its either junk or its food” imprinted on my mind. I know how bad sugar drinks in particular “sodas” can be for us. I would like to see the federal government mandate laws requiring the placement of warning lables on soda cans similar to that on cigarette packages.


    Your thoughts?

  • A vision well articulated!!! And I fully agree!!! I am an RN who has pretty much seen the gamut of chronic illness and the inability of traditional medicine to adequately address any of it. When I went down 2 years ago this summer, due to plaques in my brain suspicious of MS, and spinal compression from a degenerative process requiring not 1 but 2 surgeries on my neck, I used traditional medicine to take care of the immediate issues and from then on have been committed to eating, supplementing, PT for the balance, gait training and strengthening issues, rewiring my thought processes … God heals. I have no doubt in my mind or heart about that. I have seen legs grow. I have seen pain leave, including intense debilitating pain in my body … I was dancing 3 months after my right total hip replacement in the healing rooms at BethelChurch … a miracle given that it was surgery number 3 in a 9 month period of time.

    And what happens after healing? There is a need to care for our bodies with love and tenderness, to feed them foods that agree with them, that do not set up angry, inflammatory responses, to nourish them with what they need to be in balance and happy … happy bodies are pain free bodies, rested bodies, relaxed bodies … there is a need to change our thinking about our bodies, and the words we speak over them and about them.

    I had cut out everything inflammatory in August 2010 whne this all came to a head. No gluten, soy, corn, night shades (those were major contributors to pain intolerable) … it was not enough. It was imperative in the rebuilding process to add supplementation … I am still in the rebuilding process … my last surgrey was almost a year ago … without the supplements, I believe that I would without a doubt not have the mobility I have today. All the PT in the world cannot help a weakened, broken down body that is not receiving the nourishment that it needs.

    I have a ways to go … and I am filled with immense hope. God has blessed me with family who understands the food and nutrition issues … He created us to be in community … to help each other, to “bear each other’s burdens …” support each other through whatever comes along …


  • Dr. Hyman,

    Thank you so much for all your tireless efforts toward helping us get healthier.
    I am really enjoying the 30 days of UltraWellness coming through my email. My kids & I have listened to it everyday. We are incorporating more and more of your tips. We are getting in more exercise also.
    I have been off everything white for over 2 weeks now and it is easier than I thought it would be. I am drinking the proper amount of water finally also. What a difference!
    Since I am the one that does the shopping and cooking, I have been implementing changes in meals and making healthier snacks and desserts. Fresh fruit has always been available ( a big bowl of fruit on the table ) and now we have gotten away from canned food altogether and going fresh or frozen only.
    Thankfully, we haven’t fallen prey to fast food, fried food, soda, alcohol, cigarettes, or high fat & sodium snacks like chips. We have a pretty good rock to build on, in my opinion.
    My kids are helpful when we shop too, looking for those things that only have real ingredients or 5 ingredients or less and all recognizable. We have even done some in-home taste tests ( between the old canned vegetables & fruit vs. fresh ) which have been very successful.
    We are using supplements, as you suggested, also.

    Bless you for your insight and ability to explain it all so well.
    Here is to good health!

  • My doctor told me my blood pressure was high and my blood sugar was borderline diabetic. If I didn’t improve my health, I would have to take medication. I started going to my local YMCA to get some exercise and signed up for their Weight Loss Challenge. We have meetings once a week and exercise for an hour. In meetings we talk about nutrition, recipes, exercises, health, problems we face while losing weight. The teachers for the class are wonderful. It has been so helpful to be part of a group and get healthy together. We are supportive of each person in the group. I have been in the program for over a year and have lost about 40 pounds. I’m thin now, workout about 5 days a week and eat healthy food. I have made some new friends at the YMCA. I keep going to my weight loss meeting to stay healthy. My doctor was all smiles when I lost the weight!

  • What an inspirational message and infectious optimism! Can’t wait to see this catch on like wildfire. Brillant Health Corps idea! Thanks for sharing.

  • I agree with the concept of working together with others to achieve health related goals. I’ve been a part of Overeaters Anonymous for many years and have seen this concept work in small groups. In OA we follow the 12 Steps based on AA, but we also create our own food plans based on removing unhealthy foods and foods that cause us to be triggered to overeat, and perhaps most importantly, we share our struggles along with our experience, strength and hope with the others. This group, and other 12 Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, offer belonging for those who feel different from society. They offer support and acceptance as we work on ourselves. These groups, and the one you have formed are truly the answer for many, many people. Please keep up the great work!

  • Dr. Human,
    Where can I obtain the template and materials to lead/facilitate this at my church? I have a passion for community and health and have been thinking of doing something like this for years since I started really paying attention to whole food eating as part of wellness. Social networks are great, in person is best when possible.
    Please share the how of the program to get the revolution on fire!

  • This is a lovely idea. We need to brainstorm places it can be “delivered” to those who do not have–or want–a church, synagogue, mosque or temple.
    Where do I sign up for the training?

  • Mark,

    This is SOOO great! I love how you put all the relevant pieces together to create such massive success.

    May you receive tons of press for this wonderful project!


  • Thanks for this fabulous article and great program! Your work connects with mine in many ways. My book, The Power of Community: CrossFit and the Force of Human Connection, is all about the ideas and findings you present here. I am a psychologist and owner of four CrossFit gyms in California. Our community is much like Rick Warren’s church–one large community of many, broken into smaller groups that propel each other to action. I LOVE the recent trends of people recognizing that we can all do so much more for ourselves and others if we come together in groups. Here’s a link to a 3-minute video about my book. Thanks so much, and enjoy!

  • Hi Ed:

    Mark what an inspiring idea!!
    We have both a church community @ Unity of Citrus, plus our clinic community of patients who would benefit from
    this model!!
    As a Functional Med. practice we work with the matrix, and are helping many get off meds, with lifestyle changes, but
    this model can bring it to another level!

    Mark: Thanks for being a pioneer for health.
    See you in Arizona!

  • Absolutely! If we put together enough projects like this, we can then sell the government on the value of doing it themselves for the country. As I see it, it only makes sense: the government could put out a *free* video based program….everyone has a computer now. Could be followed by a test. Open book even. People who pass the test would be given reduced medical premiums. This is after a study is done to show that passing the test equates to improved health results: once people know a thing they cannot forget what they know! This is sooo coming. As I see it, we will become a Learning Culture. It’s only natural. The I-net had to be invented first. Education will now largely move online i think – because we can deliver the newest ideas in real-time, even upgrades. Its going to become a wonderful world. This is happening everywhere…

  • Sign me up for the Health Corps!

    What would be fantastic would be some form of support to create the community leaders in this plan, with materials available from a library, that could be used as the basis for holding meetings within a community.

  • I’m with Lynn Kelly! In her comment she mentioned getting her church to come together in a group effort to give support to those who need to get healthy and change all these health problems! I have been on the blood sugar solution program for almost one month now and I can say… I am even enjoying water these days. I have a blog set up for myself and to share my process of getting off the extra weight and to stop taking medication for my heart. That is my goal…for next year to stop needing the drugs for my heart. I love this way of eating and I believe that the more support we have out there from our community the more success we will enjoy!

    Visit my blog and leave a comment.

  • Mark, you’re on target. Not just a better delivery model for the right drug or the right information… but REAL community whereby we come-into-unity as a support system for self-care which is 97.5% of health care. I know this from my experience developing three holistic health centers over 30 years, developing a model for ‘Universal Self Care’ as could now — with the Internet — serve online health devotees worldwide.

    As you have demonstrated, the body will heal itself when simple diet and lifestyle factors build health, and I also see a vision to scale this to a billion people by putting the ‘care’ back into health care. A simple on-line ‘Universal Self Care’ model will build that ‘caring bridge’ between users and providers in this system, and the community of participants can provide an empirical database of what’s working best for any individual’s current health profile of symptoms.

    Real community cultures social conscience in our social networks, and it’s not rocket science with the Internet and participants who care enough to share their results to inspire others to action.

    I would love to share a lot more about this if you are interested with more specifics on ‘Universal Self Care’ at

    Keep the Faith. With love as the rule, self-care rules!

  • How can I become a Health Champion in my community? I’m on board! Since I was in college, I have, “gone against the gain” in regard to my way of eating healthy. I agree, there is social pressure to over-indulge, self-medicate, and even be bulimic! People are always trying to “convert” me or to push their junk food on me. And Mark, you are right, hanging around healthy people makes you want to be healthy. Small groups work!